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Written by Danielle Sim (Associate Author) | Mentored by Jennifer Lim Wei Zhen and Amelia Chew | Reviewed by Jameson Dempsey

LawTech.Asia is proud to conclude the first run of its Inaugural Associate Author Programme by publishing the works of its Associate Authors. The aim of the Associate Authorship Programme was to develop the knowledge and exposure of student writers in the domains of law and technology, while providing them with mentorship from LawTech.Asia’s writers and tailored guidance from a well-respected industry mentor.

This first run of the Associate Author Programme was a partnership between LawTech.Asia and Singapore Management University’s Legal Innovation and Technology Club. After a thorough selection process, two students were selected as Associate Authors, where they worked on thought pieces with a mentor from LawTech.Asia. Their pieces were each industry-reviewed by a respected thought leader from the legal technology industry.

This piece by Danielle Sim, reviewed by industry reviewer Jameson Dempsey (Residential Fellow at the Stanford Centre for Legal Informatics), marks the first thought piece in this series, and deals with the issue of open source development of legal technology.

Danielle would like to extend her heartfelt thanks to Jameson Dempsey, Alexis Chun (Legalese), Amelia Chew and Jennifer Lim Wei Zhen (LawTech.Asia) for their invaluable and helpful guidance in the writing of this piece.

Open source legal technology

The concept of “open source” is so integral to the software industry that Forbes called it “one of the most powerful tools modern developers have at their disposal”. Today, free and open source software powers data centres around the world, popular web browsers, artificial intelligence tools, and leading desktop and mobile operating systems. Open source software is not only pervasive, it is an essential component of modern computer systems, lowering costs and driving global innovation; yet the presence of open source development in legal technology is small. Given how transformational open source has been on many areas of software development, there is much potential for open source to spur legal technology innovation and access to justice. In this short article, I will describe the concept of open source software and discuss ways that we might build a community of open source legal technologists to advance access to justice in Asia and beyond.

What is free and open source software?

In the traditional way of software development, a team or organisation develops proprietary software, owns the rights over it, and licenses out the software for profit. Source code is fiercely protected. The development process is carefully controlled.

Free and open source software is developed differently. It grew out of a culture of learning and sharing amongst programmers in the 1980s and 1990s and it makes the source code freely available for anyone to use, modify and redistribute. No one person controls how the software will eventually develop. Users have the freedom to adapt the software for their needs and rapid prototyping is driven by the unbounded capacity of a motivated community of contributors. Open source is ground-up and community-driven.

Open source has come some way since its days of informal sharing amongst programming hobbyists to its adoption by large corporations. Big players traditionally known for their proprietary software have since realised the tremendous benefits of open source movements and now boast open source projects with vibrant communities of collaborators. Even Adobe, which found great success in its proprietary products, has made a strong push towards exploring open source resulting in the launch of the Adobe Open Source Office in 2016. With businesses discovering the commercial value of open source to align innovation with actual user needs and develop strong engagement with users, it is little wonder that open source development is gaining momentum.

With businesses discovering the commercial value of open source to align innovation with actual user needs and develop strong engagement with users, it is little wonder that open source development is gaining momentum.

Free and open source software in the legal industry

In the legal industry, the early apprehension towards technology has erupted into a thunderous assembly of legal technology start-ups and law firms flaunting the use of all forms of legal technology. And yet, most of this software development is created in a proprietary fashion (with many startups spending significant development time reinventing tools to address common legal technology needs). 

Recently, however, there has been exploration into developing legal technology in a collaborative, open-source manner. Open source tools have developed across the spectrum of legal needs: there is conflict-checker ConflictFinder that draws on XML Wikipedia archives to search for conflicts, time tracker GnoTime which produce reports on time spent on projects and file management system CaseBox that allows users to control the server on which they store their data. Docassemble is another prominent open source legal technology tool which allows anyone to create legal apps using built-in integrations for e-signatures, SMS-based reminders, and machine learning, while another powerful tool, OpenFisca, has been used by governments in countries such as France and New Zealand to model public benefits legislation in code. Open source has also been vital to the development of smart legal contracting tools, such as the Accord Project.

While open source legal technology has begun to take hold in pockets around the world, a quick scan of legal technology in Asia reveals that these legal technology start-ups and law firms tend strongly towards the traditional proprietary development of software. This proprietary model of software development however results in higher development costs and a longer time before the technology proves to be useful to legal practitioners. Costly financial investments with little immediate results to show for it are unhelpful where funding and time are limited. In some cases, the development of niche solutions will not even be seriously considered given the substantial investment needed. This is especially so for smaller markets in Asia that end up with “fewer home-grown, inward-looking start-ups,” given that the high costs involved in building robust legal technology may not be recoverable where the market size is too small. In a nutshell, limited funding and small market sizes lead to the premature death of potentially impactful legal technology. 

The promise of open source legal technology in Asia

Open source development could transform the legaltech market in Asia in two ways: firstly, shared development reduces concerns about hefty investment costs; secondly, easy customisation of the software by anyone stimulates innovations in niche markets; and thirdly software developed by lean teams are no less secure. 

  1. Reduced Development Costs. The collaborative nature of open source spreads the cost of development. To be clear, when open source is extolled as being free it does not always mean “free” like with free beer, rather “free” refers to the concept of freedom as with free speech. Although open source may not be cost-free, it is often the more cost-efficient route for software development since there is less duplication of work. Without a platform for coordination, individual players will have to take on development work on their own which drives up the cost of development. This appears to be the case for legal technology development in Asia: A 2019 report on the state of legal innovation in Asia Pacific found “a remarkable non-coordinated coincidence in legal innovation” across jurisdictions where the legal technologies developed by law firms and start-ups in various countries revolve around similar use cases of marketplaces, research, document review, and online advice. Open source presents a platform to collaborate in developing the basic blocks for these tools.  With the sharing of development work the prohibitively high upfront costs are reduced. Technology solutions can then be developed sustainably, even in small local markets and niche areas of law.
  2. Jurisdiction-specific Customisation. Open source not only enables meaningful collaboration between software developers across jurisdictions, it also allows for software to be customised for the specific needs of each jurisdiction. Open source is free to be used and modified by anyone in any way they wish to. This allows for vast customization by users to suit their specific preferences, resulting in wide functionality and rapid innovation to address unique market needs.
  3. Security. The active community involvement of users also helps to ensure that the software is robust. More users find more bugs. While more bugs are usually not a good thing, it can be when the users who find them are co-developers who are invested in debugging. The result is robust code that is heavily stress-tested. The “Linus Law”, named after Linux creator Linus Torvalds, also comes into play where “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” With more users using and testing the code, flaws are quickly corrected and concerns that open source software is inherently less secure than proprietary software can be put to rest.

Overcoming potential limitations

Even if open source is the appropriate approach, there are several things that developers must take into consideration in order to ensure sustainability of open source projects. First, the powering force behind any open source development is its community. Without a community and effective governance, there is no open source project (or the project goes stale). In the seminal essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, Eric Raymond highlights important social elements for open source projects, like beginning with a plausible promise of a product that draws contributors and also personalities that can drive community engagement. 

In addition to community, there is the question of financial sustainability. How can open source be a viable business model if the start-up or developers driving a software’s development is giving away its source code for free? Perhaps the most popular method is to create a non-profit foundation. Organizations such as the Linux Foundation raise revenue through corporate membership and individual donations to support maintenance of open-source projects on a collective basis. Linux Foundation members include some of the largest technology companies in the world, along with thousands of individual donors. In the legal context, one could imagine law firms, corporate legal departments, universities, and access to justice organizations contributing to the maintenance of a core set of open source legaltech.

Another common approach for successful companies with open source at its core is a freemium model. For example, RedHat offers its software for free but charges enterprise accounts for technical support services, while MySQL offers a base software for free but charges for enterprise subscriptions that come with additional services relevant for companies (e.g. encryption tools and technical support). Singapore-based open source legal technology start-up Legalese also draws on this approach. Legalese has ambitious plans to develop a domain-specific programming language for law called L4 and it does so with the support of a vibrant community of around 100 active members. With an open-source DSL for law, it aims to do for legal what Adobe’s Postscript has done for graphics design: the different aspects of law (contracts, regulations, business process logic) being written in the same common denominator language means that these parts of law can now talk to each other; bringing law and its practitioners closer to what Legalese calls “using technology to help with the thinking, and not just the manual labour (typing). In choosing the open source route Legalese is able to canvass the expertise of a wide range of contributors, but it is also not naïve about the need to commercialise the project. As L4 matures, Legalese has plans to build web applications supporting L4 that can be monetised. Legalese’s ability to secure funding also reveals that investors have given their vote of confidence to this less-than-traditional but emerging business model.

How might we grow an open source legal technology community in Asia? 

The open source ecosystem in Asia is still young and the sluggish adoption of open source has been talked about. But things could be changing. Annual events like FOSSASIA’s OpenTechSummit, Conference for Open Source Coders, Users and Promoters (“COSCUP“) in Taiwan, and the Hong Kong Open Source Conference (“HKOSCon“) reveal a growing community around open source. Even the Singapore government is jumping onto the open source trend and made the code for its smart mobility platform, Beeline, open source. Specific to law, Legal Hackers, a global grassroots community that explores creative solutions to issues at the intersection of law and technology, boasts 14 local chapters in Asia. Given that community is key to any open source movement, the increasing buzz and participation sets the foundation for open source legal technology to thrive in Asia. 

Start-ups and firms building legal technology can explore the potential of open sourcing their software as open source communities become more vibrant. Local chapters of Legal Hackers can support the budding interest and needs of each country through events that bring the open source legal community together. These events can serve as a platform for learning, sharing and collaboration between community members. Universities can also encourage students developing legal technology to make their software open source— which is how Court Listener, a project to provide free access to legal materials, started.  And corporations and large law firms can contribute resources to support these projects.

Open source presents immense potential legal technology development in small local legal markets in Asia. Start-ups will still need to work out their cost recovery model, but with open source the lower costs of development could make viable a project that was previously too expensive to consider. As the open source legal community in Asia grows we can expect home-grown legal innovation to really flourish, making legal technology more relevant and accessible.

This piece was written as part of LawTech.Asia’s Associate Authorship Programme.

About the author: After spending part of her career exploring edutech innovation, Danielle is now pursuing a JD law degree and is excited to be part of the generation making sense of how tech will transform the practice of law.